Protect Against Flu: Get Vaccinated and Practice Good Hygiene

  • As the cooler temperatures of Autumn begin to roll over the Northern Hemisphere so does the Cold and Flu Season.  Flu (influenza) is a serious contagious disease that can lead to hospitalization and even death. Last year, a new and very different flu virus (called 2009 H1N1) spread worldwide causing the first flu pandemic in more than 40 years. Flu is unpredictable, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expects the 2009 H1N1 virus to spread this upcoming season along with other seasonal flu viruses.


    Flu Vaccine: Protect Yourself and Others


    It is important to take steps NOW to prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses.  For people who live with a chronic illness, or are at higher risk of experiencing complications from the flu, receiving the seasonal flu vaccine is the first step in protecting themselves against flu viruses.  Each year the vaccine is different.  Research will predict which strains may be most prevalent that year and the vaccine is then designed to protect against those viruses.  This year the vaccine works against an influenza A H3N2 virus, an influenza B virus, and the 2009 H1N1 virus.

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    People at high risk of serious flu complications include young children, pregnant women, people with chronic heath conditions, and people 65 years and older.  Everyone 6 months of age and older should get vaccinated against the flu as soon as the vaccine is available.  Vaccination is especially important for the people who care for or are around persons at high risk, including babies under 6 months of age who cannot be vaccinated.


    ****It is very important that persons with altered immune systems, whether due to disease or medication, do not receive the “live virus” vaccine found in the nasal vaccine.  Any RA patients on methotrexate or one of the biologics should ONLY receive the vaccine shot with the “dead virus.”  Ask which are you receiving before you offer your arm to the needle.


    How the Flu Can Spread


    People with flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away.  Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk.  These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.  Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.


    To avoid spreading or contracting the flu, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw the tissue in the trash after you have used it.  If no tissue is available, cough or sneeze into your sleeve or elbow. Wash your hands often with soap and water.  If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub to clean your hands.  Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth as germs spread this way.  Try to avoid close contact with people who are sick.  Linens, eating utensils, and dishes used by those who are sick should not be shared without thoroughly washing them first.


    The flu virus is very contagious.  You can infect others with the flu even a day before your own symptoms develop and up to 5-7 days after you become sick.  Symptoms often start 1-4 days after the virus enters the body.  Children may spread the virus for even longer than seven days.  This means you may be able to pass the flu onto someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.  Persons who are infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms may still spread the virus to others.


    Anytime you are sick with a flu-like illness or develop a fever, it is recommended that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (except to see the doctor or for other necessities).  Avoid coming into contact with others.  The CDC also suggests that your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medication such as Tylenol or Motrin.

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    The Flu: Symptoms and Treatments


    The flu can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death.  It is a serious disease, very much different from a cold.  The flu usually comes on suddenly although you may not experience symptoms until 1-4 days after infection.  Flu-like symptoms include fever or feeling feverish (chills), cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headache, and fatigue (tiredness).  Some people may also have vomiting and diarrhea.  People may be infected with the flu and have respiratory symptoms without developing a fever.


    If you get the flu, antiviral drugs can help to treat your illness.  These medications are different from antibiotics and are not available over-the-counter.  Antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu, can lessen the severity of illness and the length of time you are sick.  They may also prevent serious flu complications, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, or sinus and ear infections.


    For antiviral treatment to be effective, the drugs must be started within the first 2 days of developing symptoms.  This means that if you suspect the flu, are very sick, or someone at risk for complications, you need to see your doctor immediately.  A quick nose-swab test can be conducted to see if you are carrying an influenza virus.


    Anyone can get the flu, even healthy people, and serious problems from the flu can happen at any age.  Most people, however, who get the flu will have mild illness (although it may not feel like it at the time), will not need medical care or antiviral drugs, and will recover in less than two weeks.  It is for the benefit of those people who are more likely to develop complications that result in being hospitalized and occasionally result in death that we should all do what we can to avoid spreading the flu virus from person to person.


    What You Can Do


    The CDC offers excellent advice on what to do if you get sick with the flu and how to care for someone at home who is sick with the flu.  Regarding the flu vaccine, discuss with your doctor whether he/she recommends that YOU get the vaccine this year.  Your doctor is the one who knows your particular situation and can understand your personal and medical needs.


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    Below is a summary of good health habits (from the CDC website) which will help to prevent spreading the flu virus:

    • Avoid close contact.  Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
    • Stay home when you are sick.  If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your illness.
    • Cover your mouth and nose.  Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
    • Clean your hands.  Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
    • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.  Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
    • Practice other good health habits.  Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.


    Lisa Emrich is author of the blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers.

Published On: October 11, 2010